The performance on Shah Inayat enthralled the audience | Photos courtesy: Dr Asif Memon
The performance on Shah Inayat enthralled the audience | Photos courtesy: Dr Asif Memon

In 2007, the Murk Theatre Group performed a play in a community hall in Hyderabad, on the importance of voting.

Midway through the performance, the audience found the actors asking them what they would do if they were in place of their characters. Members of the audience could also discuss the issues and questions in their minds with the actors on stage.

Unbeknown to the audience, they had participated in interactive theatre — a form of art which breaks down barriers that separate actors from the audience, allowing, as the name suggests, interaction between the two. The audience left the performance clearly moved.

Hyderabad-based Dr Asif Memon, 57, and his wife Kazbano, 42, have been entertaining audiences for two decades with their Murk Theatre Group. The couple has been performing dramas on stage, in the streets and among communities.

A husband and wife duo in Hyderabad has been performing interactive theatre for two decades now, and kickstarting important conversations on socio-political issues in the process

Theatre has had a strong presence in Sindh since before Partition. The Royal Theatre Karachi was formed in 1854, when Thomas Haines’ melodrama The Soldier Bride was performed in Karachi. The play was performed by the artists of the 83rd Regiment.

According to Dr Muhammad Yousif Pahnwar’s book Sindhi Natak Ji Tareekh, “In the year 1854, The Happy Man was also performed. After the establishment of the Royal Theatre, the trend of theatre came into pace, gradually with other theatrical groups coming to the surface, such as The Karachi Friends’ Society, Penny Readings and Dramatic Society, the Dramatic Club of Ghostlier Regiment, and the First Battalion W R Dramatic Club. The English officers of forces took part in these theatrical groups. People used to come to entertain themselves through dramas.”

Dr Memon — who is a scriptwriter, actor and theatre trainer — has been engaged in this field since 1980, when he was a young boy. He performed dramas on Radio Hyderabad and Pakistan Television (PTV) but, after gaining admission in the Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences (LUMHS), he chose to focus solely on his education.

Kazbano and Dr Asif Memon
Kazbano and Dr Asif Memon

“After getting my medical degree, I established a charitable clinic in Hyderabad with the coordination of my friends,” he says. “I had a concept of theatre in mind. I thought, instead of delivering lectures to the people on diseases, we should convey the message through drama, which will create an impressive impact. In 1992, I started community theatre on health-related issues from the platform of the Murk Theatre Group.”

Both Dr Memon and his wife Kazbano have received training in theatre from Ajoka, Sheema Kermani, Lok Rahs Punjab, and the Interactive Resource Centre. Dr Memon has also performed in the Indo-Pak Theatre Festival in 2003 in a drama about gender discrimination.

Kazbano, meanwhile, has worked as an actor in over 100 plays, and has also received training in the field of direction; she is now a senior director and performer.

“I do believe it is easy for me to train fresh actors rather than senior artists, as they think they know everything about stage drama,” says Kazbano. “It can take time to understand the skills required to perform in interactive theatre. A performer should know that every gesture, action and even calmness has a particular meaning in theatre.”

She also speaks about the distinction between TV and stage drama. “While an actor is on the stage, for example, he can’t show his back to the audience, the voice quality should be high, and if anyone from the audience claps during the performance, the actor should not stop performing,” she says. “Everything backstage is my responsibility, including anything that goes wrong during the play.”

The couple believes theatre and stage dramas are good platforms for advocacy. Kazbano says it is easier to convey a message in a short period of time through the medium of theatre.

“This is not just entertainment, it has relevance with socio-political issues,” she adds. “There are theatre labs in other countries, which provide bigger space to performers by using modern techniques. Social issues are addressed through theatre and performance art builds awareness.”

The couple explains that they saw how other groups were performing purely for entertainment purposes, so they decided to focus their work on unique themes. They decided to perform dramas on the indigenous heroes of Sindh. Before this, these characters were portrayed in poetry or prose, and they realised that to create a script for a play about them would not be possible without solid research.

“Our play on Shaheed Shah Inayat took one year to research and another six months to write the script,” Kazbano explains. And the audience response to it was overwhelming. Dr Memon recalls how he met many young people from the audience at the end of the play who told him they had never known about Shah Inayat’s rebellious nature; they thought he was ‘just a Sufi man.’

Their theatre troupe has performed plays to raise awareness on different issues, from health and hygiene to honour crimes, domestic violence, transgender rights and education. It has also performed some international plays, such as Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, which was staged in Hyderabad.

“Once we were doing a play on honour killing in Larkana, where a girl was killed,” says Dr Memon. “While the play was based on a real incident, we decided to add some twists and turns in the story. The Deputy Commissioner of Larkana was also among the audience. The next day when Kazbano and I were reading reviews of the play, we saw a story on the same page about the Deputy Commissioner of Larkana ordering the reopening of the case of the girl killed in an honour crime and asking police to arrest all culprits in her murder.”

The couple is inspired by the interactive theatre techniques of Augusto Baol — a Brazilian theatre artist known for creating a form of immersive theatre where members of the audience become performers, acting out solutions to problems.

“The main purpose of interactive theatre is to make people realise what they think, what will be the first reaction from their side, if any tragedy or incident happens to them,” says Kazbano. “It creates a space for questions in different minds. Interactive theatre creates a way to revisit people’s thinking.”

“We have seen many drama groups in Sindh but they no longer exist, because our art does not support an artist financially,” says Dr Memon. “Being a doctor I earn my bread and butter from my job and I spend money on my passion, but there are numerous artists who rely on theatre and they face financial issues. It is challenging for them to continue.”

The couple does not want to seek any support from the government but wants to offer services for theatre learners and is willing to teach stage techniques to the younger generation. Dr Memon has also designed courses in this regard, from the diploma level to the postgraduate level. He has also written a book on theatre development that will be published soon.

Both husband and wife are committed to continuing the legacy of theatre despite all the hurdles.

“Theatre is a medium of awareness, and it explores creative abilities of the human mind,” says playwright and fiction writer Hafeez Kumbar, who has worked as an actor and scriptwriter with Kazbano and Dr Memon. “I believe it can unchain chained minds. And artists like Dr Memon and Kazbano are challenging conventional norms.”

The writer is a Sindhi fiction writer, blogger and journalist.

He can be reached at akhterhafez@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 27th, 2022

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